In the wake of a scathing report from a court-appointed “special master” empowered to investigate political hiring abuses under former Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and other state officials and lawmakers, current Gov. Bruce Rauner has asked for the court’s guidance on whether those improperly hired, thanks to political connections, should now be able to use collective bargaining agreements to leverage the experience they gained in those positions to land in different positions or even move up in the state’s employment ranks.
On April 25, Rauner filed a “motion for clarification” in Chicago federal court, asking the judge overseeing the work of Special Master Noelle Brennan to help the state escape a “dilemma” under which the state’s collective bargaining agreements and related labor relations documents could essentially force the state to violate a court decree dating back decades forbidding the state from using political considerations to hire or advance the employment of state workers.
The day prior, Brennan had filed a report with the federal court indicating her investigation had revealed state officials had abused a special hiring exemption to place at least dozens of their friends, family and supporters into so-called “staff assistant” positions at the Illinois Department of Transportation and other state agencies, in violation of the 1972 court directive forbidding such blatantly political hiring in what should otherwise be non-political jobs.
Brennan had been appointed to the special master position in 2014 by Federal Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier, who is overseeing ongoing proceedings in the case known as Shakman et. al. v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, et. al. First filed in 1969, that lawsuit produced a 1972 court decree prohibiting state agencies from making most hires based on political considerations. Schenkier had empowered Brennan to launch an investigation into IDOT hiring practices, after the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General had uncovered hiring irregularities under the administration of Democratic former Gov. Quinn, but had declared no evidence could be found that Quinn and his senior directors had direct knowledge or leading roles in the improper hiring.
In her report, Brennan said she found that conclusion to be unsupportable.
“The governor’s office received, reviewed, forwarded and tracked resumes…; most of those candidates had a political connection; and many of the politically connected candidates hired … lacked any policy or other relevant experience,” Brennan wrote in her report.
The report focused primarily on dozens of “staff assistants” hired at IDOT since 2009, most at the insistence of staff and directors at the office of Quinn, governor’s office administrators and staff, or Madigan and other state lawmakers.
The hires were made using a special exemption, allowed for making political hires in key policy-making positions, to ensure elected officials can trust those setting policy align with their political beliefs and priorities.
However, the vast majority of those hired, the report noted, were hired despite having little or no qualifications for the duties they were supposedly hired to perform, or were hired into positions that should have not been considered exempt from the decree.
One applicant referenced in the special master’s report, for instance, had prior work experience as a “bricklayer journeyman, carpenter and batch maker,” yet was hired as a staff assistant at the request of Speaker Madigan as a staff assistant, earning nearly $48,000 per year, responsible for “assisting in the overall development and coordination of policy and directives regarding programs developed by the Office of Small Business Services.”
Others were hired after correspondence from the governor’s office and other ranking state officials indicated they were family or connected in some way to state lawmakers, board members or other influential state officials or bureaucrats.
While former state officials told the special master’s investigators they merely forwarded names of potential job applicants to state agency directors, leaving them free to hire or reject the candidates, Brennan said the evidence indicated this “explanation was not credible.”
She noted governor’s office staff and others would routinely send resumes of potential candidates to state agencies in batches, and then would follow up with the state agencies, often multiple times, to ensure those applicants received interviews, and were hired. Often the resumes were sent whether the state agency was actively seeking to hire for certain positions, or not. At times, the report noted, positions were created for the sponsored job seekers, while at other times, Quinn’s staff would veto hiring selections until their preferred candidate was ultimately hired.
And, in other instances, the report noted, the governor’s staff would step in to prevent their connected state workers from being fired or reassigned, in some cases, helping connected workers receive promotions to sidestep the termination threat.
Brennan also noted the timing of the hires was suspicious, noting the pace of hiring increased dramatically in 2010. The year before, IDOT had hired only 21 staff assistants. Yet, in 2010, the agency hired 73, and followed that up with 62 more hires in 2011.
“The idea that IDOT needed, in 2010 alone, 73 new assistant policymakers is simply not credible on its face,” Brennan wrote.
In her report, Brennan noted “the Rauner Administration and IDOT have taken significant steps toward eliminating some of the problematic employment practices,” including eliminating the staff assistant position.
“The elimination of the Staff Assistant position is a positive step; it is, however, one of many remedial actions the State must take to fully address past patronage practices in the State of Illinois,” Brennan wrote. “The illegal hiring of the Staff Assistants has a continuing impact on State government,” she added, noting many of those illegally hired remain in state posts, as well as those who “facilitated the illegal hires.”
In his April 25 motion, Rauner asked the court to clarify how the state should treat those illegal hires who remain.
His motion centered on one particular state worker, identified only as “John Doe,” who was hired as an IDOT staff assistant in 2011, at the insistence and recommendation of Gov. Quinn’s office, under the policy exemption. Doe’s prior work experience, according to Rauner’s motion, was as a tennis and football coach, a security guard and brief employment as an administrative assistant to former State Rep. and Worth Township Democratic Committeeman John O’Sullivan. Doe was paid $45,720 a year.
After Doe “never performed the duties listed in the actual Staff Assistant job description,” he “began performing the duties of a Rail Operations Inspector, such as conducting field inspections on Amtrak trains, reviewing passenger train schedules, and evaluating crew performance,” sometime in 2013 or 2014, the motion said.
In August 2014, IDOT issued Doe a layoff notice, along with all others who held the staff assistant position. However, Doe’s union, Teamsters Local 916, filed suit to block the layoffs, resulting in a settlement deal to forestall the job losses. As part of that deal, IDOT agreed to a nearly year-long “hiring period” under which the staff assistants could apply for various other positions.
Doe then applied for the position of Rail Operations Inspector, and during the hiring process, thanks to the experience he gained while working informally in that role while technically classified as a staff assistant, he emerged as the third-best candidate for the job. However, the two ranked ahead of him declined the job, leaving him potentially as the best candidate for the job.
Rauner said this kind of situation is likely to become increasingly common at IDOT and other state agencies as more illegally hired former staff assistants seek to land other assignments in state government.
“If Plaintiffs’ (Rauner’s) interpretation of the (Shakman) Decree is correct – that IDOT cannot credit an applicant’s experience gained in a position for which the applicant was improperly hired – then the Governor will not be able to comply with both the Decree and the stipulations in the Teamsters case unless this Court issues an order reconciling the conflicting directives,” Rauner argued.
“And this interpretation of the Decree could apply to countless other State employees at IDOT and in other agencies who apply for new positions or are considered for promotions in the future.”
The judge has scheduled briefings and arguments on Rauner’s question in May and June. He has scheduled a hearing in August.